25 May 2010

Talking About Faith

Talking about faith is something I do much more with those converting to Judaism than with those born Jewish who are active in the life of the synagogue.  This is a fact of life for alot of rabbis, I think, though I have never formally surveyed the crowd.  But anecdotally, I'd say it's a pattern that we see.  Especially among liberal Jews, the connection to the synagogue is a matter of affiliation--where belonging in and of itself is a sign of Jewishness; the deeply felt urge to raise one's kids as Jews (with the crowning achievement of the Bar/Bat mitzvah; and then it's the sense of community in times of joy and sorrow (in fact, often, more sorrow than joy.  A 25th wedding anniversary will generally be celebrated at a nice restaurant; but when someone dies or is sick, we call the synagogue.)  Absent from this equation is the faith dynamic, which generally surfaces amidst a crisis.  Why do we suffer?  Why has someone died?  Where do the dead go?  But again, in general, this stuff makes us uncomfortable.

Former Christians seeking to become Jews, on the other, come from a place of faith and prayer.  Their religious traditions took it for granted that faith was the very language of religion (as opposed to the Jewish experience which could be land, language, food, music, literature, morals, ethics and then faith.)

In my conversations with numbers of people these last few years, I'm continually amazed at how the conversion experience into Judaism is a journey of faith more than a journey into a nation, though for some, that transition into peoplehood is equally compelling.  Converts come to Judaism having had the practice of speaking to God; of engaging with the sacred through prayer; and of struggling to understand their relationship to a tradition as an engagement using the language of faith.  For many, interestingly enough, their decision to become Jews is rooted in the idea that the particular Jewish language of faith--a formless, non-anthropomorphic God and a Torah with an infinite interpretative dimension--is exactly the expression of faith they were looking for.  Their homecoming is as real as those born Jewish--it's just in the part of the house where it's presumed that when we talk to God, God actually listens.

This particular paradoxical structure--a formless, non-anthropomorphic God who listens--is one of the foundations of the Jewish home they build.

This morning, while running in the Park, I had this thought that in the year ahead, this is a worthy conversation to be had in our community.  A dialogue among the faithful and the faithless and those who don't yet know.  While it's a cliche to say there is much for people to learn from one another, I think that in Jewish community's we often don't fully get the equation down right when it comes to conversion.  Meaning:  we presume that (and it's not necessarily wrong) as Larry David once sagely put it, "you come over to our side." But what about looking at the dynamic from the other direction--what might those born Jewish learn and understand about the faith journey of those not born into the Tradition.  What informs their souls in relationship with the God of our Ancestors.  Converts, when joining up, acquire a Hebrew name for themselves and immediately become a son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah.  They acquire lineage.  The lineage of the first Jew, who wasn't born a Jew, but who listened and responded when God spoke.

So next fall I'll be interested in putting together a series of conversations on the faith journey in the life of those in our community.  Let me know if you're interested.

20 comments:

Sophia said...

In my case, I deem it be living on both sides of the Cross. As someone who straddles both worlds, I feel that they enhance each other. My connection to Judaism has allowed me to explore my Faith in ways that are more profound than I would have ever imagined. By the same token, I feel a spiritual connection to the rituals, the readings, the stories in the Torah. Both reside in my head and in my heart. When is the first gathering?

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

It's funny-- my Christian/Roman Catholic upbringing is something I think of as a part of my childhood; something I put in the lock box only a few years after Santa. But I suppose it's only natural that on my path to Judaism I dust off some of the skill set, preliminary as it was, that I picked up then. I just never thought of it as a skill set until now. "Faith" and "religion" are words I'd long thought I had no use for. And yet, yes, "tackling the ineffable" (my current words of choice) is, by definition, based on a kind of faith. The ineffable is a certainty; I mean, it's simply what's left over when we account for the empirical. And it is huge. The faith part is that a human being can glean meaning and trajectory from the ineffable through intimate dialog. But Judaism, of course, is also community. Count me in on that dialog, too.

nld said...

This sounds like a wonderful and worthwhile series. For me, faith is about optimism and hope, not certainty. In an age of fear and suspicion and terrorism, I think we could all use more optimism and hope.

DP Greenberg said...

Just what we “Jews without choice” need, another opportunity to be reminded how much we loathe ourselves. When I was in fourth grade, a girl in the class named Lisa accused about a half a dozen of us boys of having harassed her after school the day before. Our teacher, Miss Berkowitz, who loved Lisa and hated me, had us line up and then directed Lisa to hit each of us once as she traversed the line. That is what your proposed salon between the newly anointed and the unwashed faithless feels like to me. It’s as though, after 56 years as a Jew, I’ve become bulk Jewish middle relief and am being required to pitch batting practice to some young Jewish phenom. Can you please get over the fact that some of your most devoted congregants and friends don’t believe in God? I mean, enough already. Some of us derive great sustenance from our deeply-felt connections to Judaism without so-called “faith.” It’s not something I really give much thought to because I’m not hung up over the fact that I’m an atheist and lots of you aren’t. It probably would be a non-issue if I didn’t have to be reminded of it so often. Perhaps the problem of faith is your own. Many people who don’t believe in a higher power, who, indeed, think it’s a silly idea get up every morning with the purpose of making the world better or at least not making it worse. Take that as a reaffirmance of your own faith, or ours if necessary; I would think the whole god thing is really about that anyway. Some of us don’t simply don’t need to articulate it in those terms or don’t want to. All the rest is commentary and in my opinion there is too much of it.

Andy Bachman said...

DP--Where in my own comments is anything remotely similar to Miss Berkowitz's hazing ritual of boys she hated? One might call your misguided accusation a "traumatic echo" of some other experience. I don't care one way or another if someone *doesn't* believe and don't for a second believe that there are separate categories of members. Your crisis of perception of middle relief would be funny if it weren't so intimately linked to a more pressing need for middle relief in Flushing.

DP Greenberg said...

I forgot to mention Angel Lopez who gained immortality by hitting Lisa back. Bearers of the "good news" beware.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

Meh, newsboys don't get paid enough to bear news, good or bad. I'm just trying to keep up with the news, and comparing notes.

Chris Ann Moore said...

Rabbi Bachman,
Intriguing idea to confront, explore, and deconstruct our various notions of, and apparently sometimes volatile relationship to, Faith. How does one, how can one even define that word? You are probably already familiar with Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling." I thought that perhaps his confrontation with the truly awe-ful dimension of the faith of Abraham, his willingness to murder Isaac, and the fact that this is all too often conveniently glossed over or utterly ignored, might provide some interesting material for your class. It certainly did for my philosophy class.

Andy Bachman said...

Hi Chris. Kierkegaard's reading of the Akedah adds a dimension that the Sages considered but often diverged from as well. I would take issue with your use of the term *murder* and would insist on reading the Akedah not literally but metaphorically of a range of issues--what is faith and when does it go to far? what is the Bible's Jewish view of child sacrifice? and what can we learn about Abraham's character just through the way he "obeyed" God as he translated that commanding voice to a questioning Isaac. It's such a rich text--I'm certain your philosophy class had a ball discussing it!

Chris Ann Moore said...

Yes!!! All great questions, all of which profoundly intrigue me, including how murder is/should be defined and differentiated from sacrifice or other forms of killing? Of course, Kierkegaard argues that this cannot be considered a sacrifice because there is no greater good to be achieved (a long argument) and Isaac's innocence demands that the intended act be recognized as murder. Further, he has a great deal to say about Abraham's silence. Kierkegaard's praise of the "teleological suspension of the ethical" as an act of faith is particularly chilling, especially in light of Buber's comments on its use by students in his classroom in Germany in the 1930's. I am also intrigued by the idea of metaphor and how its use may alter interpretation. So much material for fabulous discussion! I would thrown in a discussion of the meaning of Moses "punishment" for hitting the rock twice...? ! I would certainly love to take your class, that is if you welcome those who are not Jewish. Unfortunately, I live in Hawaii, but I was once a resident of Park Slope, many moons ago.

Colin Marshall said...

As someone who just finished converting, all this sounds exactly right to me. I began converting primarily because I met the right woman, so faith wasn't initially part of the picture. Moreover, nobody in her family ever said anything that suggested that faith should be a consideration in my converting. The same was true for other Jews I talked to along the way - the question of whether I accepted traditional Jewish beliefs never came up.

Yet one of the clearest things I felt after I decided to convert was that I needed to figure out some form of distinctively Jewish faith that I could honestly commit myself to. I'm not quite sure where that feeling came from, but I wasn't ready to go to the mikvah until I had somehow found a sort of faith and worked out some thoughts about how that faith fit into the larger picture of my life.

Which isn't to say I've really figured anything out. If anything, the one expectation I did sense when I told Jews I was working on joining the tribe was that I not find faith too straightforward.

In any case, I'd be very interested in the sort of conversations you mention for the fall.

Amanda Leath said...

Andy, I see you've now met my very dear friend Chris Ann. One of my closest friends from college. I have often passed items that we've talked or read in class to her, as I know she would love taking a class with you. I think I mentioned to you that I told a friend to read As a Driven Leaf...this is the person I recommended it to.

Amanda said...

I think my prior posting disappeared (but if this is a repeat I apologize).

Andy, I see you have now officially met my dear friend Chris Ann. She is one of my closest friends from college. I have spoken to her often about your class and have told her that I thought she would enjoy it. If you recall, I mentioned to you recently that I told a friend to read As a Driven Leaf...this is the friend.

John said...

I consider myself lucky to have been introduced to the Jewish language of faith in all of its "formless" and "infinite interpretative" glory.

The faith language of my Catholic upbringing was so specific in its list of things required to believe that it often felt like it was someone else's faith and not my own.

Admittedly, I have been hesitant to bring that type of language to my Jewish experiences, and so I really like what Marco has to say about faith and "tackling the ineffable."

I'd love to further this discussion in the fall.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

John, I know what you mean. When my girlfriend-now-wife Debbie first suggested visiting shul, I was originally intrigued in a kind of neutral anthropologist kind of way. I was surprised to be swept up in the sheer beauty of the words: lots of awe of nature, thankfulness and sense of responsibility as opposed to the steady beat of sin, guilt and redemption I was used to. I was also intrigued by Debbie half-joking comment that half the congregation were probably atheists (this was the Upper West Side). So, in an aside to DP Greenberg, I am still intrigued by this, how atheism works within Judaism. It works for my in-laws, certainly. They attend their temple regularly and are close with their rabbi. My father-in-law bought me my first tallit and gave me his tefillin. The absence of faith (or a qualified faith) would be vital perspectives to this discussion as well.

Tim said...

O, boy.. there it is.. the G-d question. Liberal Judaism can be so good at avoiding the topic..

Faith? Me? Well had you asked me a few years ago, I'd probably told you that back in the old country, in high school, we studied Marx for about three years but faith never came up. It was much later when I started exploring Judaism that I began thinking about faith, why one should have it, why not and what people believe in and, most importantly, how it affects my relationship with those around me.

Va'yera is one of those portions in the Torah that turns many people away from Judaism. A friend of mine once called Abraham "morally corrupt." I am not sure that I agree with him because I believe we cannot read the Torah for face value. We have to read between the lines- for "faith value" -so to speak. And, call me insane but Va'yera is one of those parshiot that got me interested in studying Torah. I admire the Torah because this book is so honest with us. It's a mirror. I admire the Jewish people for clinging to it in one way or the other, despite all the trouble. I've read somewhere that the Jewish people can either be with G-d or against Him, but not without Him. We have to talk about Him, even if we don't believe that He literally gave the Torah to Moshe at Sinai. As Jews, in my view, that's something we have to face. Could there be a more appropriate place for that than shul?

Chris Ann Moore said...

For those who may be interested in a particularly philosophical/ historical view of some of these questions, I really do think you will find Buber and Levinas’ refutations of Kierkegaard’s view of “the faith of Abraham” intriguing and enlightening. When two of the most famous Jewish philosopher’s of the 20th century engage one of the most famous Christian philosophers of the 19th, it is bound to be inspiring for those who are drawn to such things, especially when the subject is Abraham. Of course, Kierkegaard can hardly be called a typical Christian; he would roll over in his grave at the very idea of being typically anything. Simply to be clear, I have little sympathy with Kierkegaard’s view, but being neither Jewish nor Christian, I am engaged. I think the dispute lies within the very definitions of Faith and Morality-an endlessly interpretative but endlessly unavoidable/demanding space. I think that Claire Elise Katz of Penn State University, a well respected Jewish philosopher of our own time, presents one interesting point of view, which some may find compelling, in her article, “The Voice of God and the Face of the Other: Levinas, Kierkegaard, and Abraham” in “The Journal for the Society for Textual Reading” at:

http://etext.virginia.edu/journals/tr/archive/volume10/Katz.html

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

Wow, Andy. Seems like the conversation's begun!

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

I totally agree with Tim's comment re. Torah as mirror. Where the other great narratives of the ancients examine the lives and whims of gods and heroes, Torah in it's examination of (dysfunctional) family dynamics and the emotional/psychological lives of its human cast (plus one Divinity) can be modern to the point of being cinematic. Re. Va'yera, I think it's always helpful to look at the events depicted in Torah in the context of middle eastern religion of the time. Contemporary readers always focus on the cruelty of a God who would ask for such a sacrifice, yet in the context of the truly volatile pagan deities of the day, what distinguishes Abraham's God is that he recants. For us the test still seems cruel; for the ancients, it must have been revolutionary.

Chris Ann Moore said...

Great points Marco. Thank you. Sincerely.
I am, of course, aware that there is a rich, even utterly overwhelming, tradition of multiple interpretations of this text. We could perhaps endlessly engage in a discussion of the meaning of the fact that Abraham was sitting outside his "tent" when his visitors appeared. Fun! But my questions is: how can this text inform our contemporary understanding of Faith and Morality in our day to day lives? I know that this question is as ridiculous as it is unavoidable... :-)